“If you set a goal for yourself and are able to achieve it, you have won your race. Your goal can be to come in first, to improve your performance, or just finish the race, its up to you” (Dave Scott, 2007).
When engaging with novice Ironman triathletes it is always evident that it is the coaches’ responsibility and obligation to set realistic and achievable goals for their first Ironman race, especially if there is little experience of racing more than 5 hours. Avoiding disappointment is so critical as this can affect the triathletes’ enjoyment of the sport, achieving success can build trust with the coach as well as providing the basis of future performance improvement. I approach a race plan using the project management principles of S.M.A.R.T. goal setting: Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Agreed, Realistic, and time based. This approach can and should be applied to both training and race planning. One may ask why is to so important for a novice Ironman triathlete. Primarily, the reason is that as the triathlete gains more experience they are more able to self adjust their effort during competition. Secondly, novice Ironman athletes in most cases have unrealistic expectations and will not understand that an Ironman distance is going to put their body into an unfamiliar environment. The triathlete needs to determine their limiting factors so these can be addressed by the coach and incorporated into future training scenarios.
SPECIFIC: The first Ironman for any triathlete sets the baseline for future performance improvements. Its primary outcome is that the triathlete must firstly consider it as a positive learning experience. Secondly, goals such as to minimize walking and to maintain an average run speed need to be specified. Only one or two goals should be created to act as an enabler for focus. The triathlete can become distracted so agree on a mantra such as “hold back and save energy” are recommended.
MEASURABLE: The criteria for the measurable factor is the accomplishment of a goal and minimizing the risk of triathlete disappointment when they do not achieve their target time, and importantly maximizing their feeling of success. The triathletes post race analysis of their performance must be rational, and can identify areas of future improvement with a positive and not negative attitude. This must provide a lasting sense of accomplishment with the feeling that they achieved an optimal result and thereby avoiding the post race depression syndrome.
ACHIEVABLE & AGREED: Setting an achievable finishing target is the coaches’ responsibility when developing the race plan. An understanding of the triathlete’s strengths and weaknesses and an analysis of the triathlete’s performance during training are the primary inputs to the plan. Once the coach has discussed the race strategy with the triathlete it is critical that the triathlete “buys in” and agrees to execute the plan accordingly. The analysis undertaken by the coach should provide the required justification of the plan to the triathlete and is highly reliant on the triathlete’s confidence in the coach. However, it is possible to have an agreed amount of flexibility and not impose too many constraints that either the triathlete feels that they are under-performing during the race because of (as examples) heat or wind which could result in them exerting too much effort to maintain the target pace, or restrain the triathlete unnecessarily should they be feeling good during the final miles of the run.
REALISTIC: The coach combines the triathletes historical and race training data, course information, and potential environmental conditions to provide the target duration of each element (swim, bike, run and transitions), extrapolating this and allowing contingency to determine the overall time. It must be understood that there is a non-linear relationship between shorter training distances and races and the finish time of an Ironman that relies on the expert judgement of the coach to determine the realistic outcome for the individual.
TIME: Developing the time element of the race plan is the final output. Much like a project schedule in project management the duration of each element will determine the overall completion (race) time. I prefer to consider pace per activity as this factors in the course variables of swim conditions, bike and run course variables, and environmental conditions. The output should create a plan that has swim pace, target heart rate and average speed for the bike and run that has times for each element (swim, T1, bike, T2, run) and the final time.
Finally, for a novice triathlete a conservative approach is recommended. The conundrum facing a coach is balancing the enthusiasm of the novice triathlete with the realities of the physical challenge. The coach lives with the success or failure of the triathlete who places their performance in their hands and the coach’s responsibility is to optimize the triathlete’s abilities to create a plan that provides the best possible outcome.
“Triathlon is work that can leave you crumpled in a heap, puking by the roadside. It's the physical brutality of climbing Mount Everest without the great view from the top of the world. What kind of person keeps coming back for more of that?” (Chris McCormack).
“Whether you race at the front or the back, the Ironman event may be regarded not so much as a race, but a survival contest, that calls on every ounce of courage its competitors possess. You can race to a point and then it becomes survival” (Pauline Cound, 1990)